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Amazingly, The Indians Are Even Better Than They Seem

The Cleveland Indians are officially on baseball’s greatest hot streak in more than eight decades.

With 21 consecutive victories, they’re now tied for the longest winning streak in MLB history with the 1935 Chicago Cubs, moving one game ahead of the 2002 “MoneyballOakland A’s for the American League’s all-time record.1 If the Indians tack on another win, they’ll break a record older than the franchise’s World Series drought — perhaps a portent of more history to be shattered next month.

And yet, even after all that winning, the Indians’ record still (still!) masks a much better ballclub underneath it. That’s right, the team that has won 21 straight is better than you think.

Back in early July, we noted that Cleveland’s then-mediocre record belied the team’s stellar underlying stats, including its outstanding run differential and expected record from BaseRuns (a formula that predicts how many games a team “should” win, given neutral luck within innings and late in close games). At the time, the Indians were struggling to fend off the upstart Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, despite vastly superior metrics. Common sense said Cleveland’s record was bound to catch up with its stats eventually, but in a sport like baseball, you never know.

By now, of course, the Indians have erased all doubt about their standing within the division; they lead the Twins — who are themselves clinging to the AL’s final wild-card spot — by 14 games. (Twenty-one straight wins do have a tendency to boost a team’s division lead.) But according to BaseRuns, Cleveland still should have more wins than they do. In fact, the Tribe’s six-win shortfall between their predicted and actual records2 is the second-biggest such margin in baseball behind the Yankees (who should have nine more wins).3 The same story goes for Cleveland’s record as predicted by run differential; they’ve fallen six wins short in that department as well.

In other words, as good as the Indians have looked this year, they’ve also been incredibly unlucky. Yes, this is akin to saying the person who drew an ordinary straight flush really deserved that royal flush.

Which brings us back to that 2002 Oakland A’s squad. As the subject of Michael Lewis’s book (and, later, its movie adaptation), their chase for 20 straight wins got the Hollywood moment it deserved:

Ironically enough, however — for a team deeply associated with the spread of advanced metrics across baseball — that team’s stats couldn’t really hold a candle to those of this year’s Indians. The 2002 A’s ranked fourth in MLB with a .598 BaseRuns-predicted winning percentage, and also came in fourth with 49.7 total wins above replacement (WAR).4 The 2017 Indians, meanwhile, lead the league in both BaseRuns winning percentage — Cleveland’s .654 clip is well clear of the second-ranked L.A. Dodgers’ .622 mark — and WAR (with 59.3, prorated to 162 games).

2017 Indians vs. the 2002 A’s

Key metrics and American League ranks for both teams, as of Sept. 12

2002 ATHLETICS 2017 INDIANS
METRIC VALUE AL RANK VALUE AL RANK
Batting average .261 8 .263 3
On base percentage .339 5 .340 2
Slugging percentage .432 7 .450 2
Weighted Runs Created Plus 106 4 106 2
Base running +10.1 5 +9.4 3
Defense -26.8 11 +20.6 3
Adjusted ERA 84 3 75 1
Adjusted FIP 88 3 76 1
Wins above replacement 49.7 3 59.3 1
Winning percentage .636 2 .614 1
Pythagorean winning percentage .591 4 .657 1

Counting stats for 2017 Indians prorated to 162 team games.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

On offense, the two clubs were roughly equivalent; Oakland ranked fourth in the AL with a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 106, while Cleveland currently ranks second with an identical 106 wRC+. But in terms of pitching and defense, the Tribe dominate. They easily lead the 2017 AL in earned run average5 and fielding independent pitching, and are third in FanGraphs’ defensive value metric. (By contrast, the 2002 A’s ranked third in ERA, third in FIP and 11th in defense.) That’s why the Indians have already allowed 217 fewer runs than an average team would in the same park, through 145 games; by comparison, Oakland “only” allowed 115 fewer runs than average in a full 162-game slate.

These are all reasons to think this year’s Indians can fare better in the postseason than the Moneyball A’s, whose season ended with a heartbreaking five-game division series loss to the Twins. The Indians had their own share of heartbreak last season (to say nothing of 1997), but they’ll be back again and even better than before. The win streak has only helped validate what was always a scary talented team underneath, waiting to break out.

Footnotes

  1. These records don’t include games that were unofficial ties (sorry, 1916 New York Giants).

  2. As of Sept. 12. Unless otherwise indicated, all numbers in this story do not include stats from Cleveland’s game against Detroit on Wednesday afternoon.

  3. The Rockies and Royals by this measure should have seven and eight fewer wins, respectively.

  4. Taking the average of Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs’s versions of WAR.

  5. Adjusted for park effects.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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